At 10 a.m., sitting around a window table at Mazzotti's, we got our instructions (no alcohol, score everything), got our multi-colored ballots and started eating.
This year, the 25th anniversary of the Arcata Bay Oyster Festival, was my first time judging. There were some 19 entries for raw and cooked oysters to award up to 20 points each: 10 possible points for flavor, five for presentation and five for creativity. And while it's gluttonous fun, the chefs put blood, sweat and vinaigrette into their offerings. Awards carry marketing weight.
As a chef, the deck is stacked against you. Josh Wiley, head chef at Abruzzi, was sympathetic, noting how hard it is to put your best food forward while feeding a sprawling line of customers from a mobile kitchen. And we judges were a motley group, each with biases, individual tastes and haunting memories of perfect oysters we ate once upon a time. Are you entering the same dish as last year? Because according to Official Oyster Babe Rachel Hoeflein-Lay, Cliff Berkowitz of KMUD, who shared his vote with his 14-year-old son, has been judging "since the dinosaurs." And Andrew Goff of Lost Coast Outpost admitted to not being wild about oysters in the first place, saying it just made him that much harder to impress.
So how the hell do you win this thing?
Start with good oysters. At my right, chef Brett Shuler of Bret Shuler Fine Catering shook his head at several oysters the flavor and texture of which weren't up to snuff, or that didn't slide from their shells. (Shuck carefully, people.) Most of the judges enjoyed the extravagance of an entry dotted with uni and four kinds of roe, Donald Forrest declared it "a nightmare. ... The oyster wasn't good. ... It was lipstick on a pig."
Bigger isn't always better. In fact, judges reached for the smaller oysters. Journal Table Talk contributor Jada Calypso Brotman, representing Mad River Union, frowned at a bivalve's poached-egg of a belly. "Ugh. That is just too big." Few cared for the grilled oyster with barbecue sauce, but the fact that in the shell it resembled a heavy little man who'd displaced his bathwater made it worse.
Presentation matters. One grim entry came in a shot glass of swampy, brown liquid. (Like many things, oysters are less attractive when pressed up against glass.) Another homely oyster showed up with a sad little lemon wedge impaled by a wooden stick. It was delicious, but as junior high and going outside have taught us, looks matter. On the other end of the spectrum was the steam-punk carousel that spun half shells around a miniature diving helmet. Sure, the motion dislodged a few ingredients, but it was fun.
Presentation isn't everything. A board of snow-cone cups packed with panko-fried oysters and bacon topped with mole sauce drew gasps, but enthusiasm fizzled. "That's just a chocolate sauce," groused Shuler. "They don't know what mole is." The oyster was too tough, its flavor clashed with the heavy sweetness of the sauce, and my bacon was fried to a powder.
Let's not get crazy. A flood of ingredients or sauce can overwhelm. At one point, Brotman uttered the words "too much butter," and I half expected Paula Deen to appear at the table like the ghost in Macbeth. If you're using the word "smothered," turn back. And while I liked the multi-roe and uni extravaganza that Forrest hated, all those luxe elements became indistinguishable.
The oyster is the star, not you. Branding yielded eye rolling. Upon reading one description, several judges wondered aloud, "What's a Humboldt Made oyster, anyway?" And while it makes sense for a brewery to tap into its taps, nearly everyone — even the few who liked it — found it gimmicky and forced.
Cook gently. Several judges at the table said they preferred raw in general, and the cooked entries that got the best reactions weren't grilled or fried to hell. They were warm and custard-like instead of chewy, and retained the briny flavor of their liquors.
Creativity is tough. Most of us really want the simplest thing: a fresh oyster with a little lemon. So how do you invent and still please? Tweak without getting wacky. The nori in the winning cooked entry was a natural pairing, but novel for the toasted crunch of the seaweed, which distracted from slightly gummy rice. And breaking the rules is risky. When a white oyster pizza with bacon showed up, Wiley said, "Fish and cheese are not allowed on the same plate in my kitchen." But I loved the dual richness against the bite of thin-sliced lemon on it. Again, individual tastes.
When the judging was through, Greg Dale from Coast Seafood was outside offering judges a taste of the barbecued Kumomotos his team had withdrawn in favor of selling. He'd tasted the Folie Douce oyster and knew he couldn't beat it. In fact, Folie Douce did win Best Cooked Oyster with its surprising grilled Kumomoto over toasted nori with wasabi, plum paste and scallions. Sushi Spot took Best Raw with a Goose Point topped with fried garlic, yuzu tobiko and Japanese chile — bright and spicy with a crunch. But the oyster I took from Dale's hand after watching him pick it from the grill and top with sauce from a battered pot was just as fine, sweet and clean tasting, topped with a tangy orange sauce that brought out the creaminess of the oyster. And you can't beat that presentation.